The Science of Surprises

There are two types of people in this world: those who like surprises (Type A)… and those who don’t! (Type B) There is simply no in between. Have you ever thought about which person you are? 

Do you squeal and squeak in delight when someone asks you to ‘close your eyes and put your hands out’, as they pass you a gift? 

Do you sneak up under the Christmas tree and give that beautifully wrapped gift with your name on it a good SHAKE to guess what’s inside (even though you know every time that it might be fragile)? Oops… guilty!

Or…. do your palms get sweaty and your heart starts racing whenever someone says the dreaded ‘S’ word?

Whether you are a ‘Type A’ or ‘Type B’, there is one thing that remains the same… and that is The Science of Surprises! Before we go any further, what exactly is a surprise? The Oxford Dictionary defines a surprise as ‘an unexpected or astonishing event or fact’. To put it simply, anything that happens differently to what you expect. 

We are all aware that there are good surprises and bad surprises. I know which I prefer! Science tells us that negative stimuli are processed in a different area of the brain to positive stimuli, so today we are here to talk about what actually goes on inside your brain when good surprises come your way!

As a ‘Type A’ myself, I know that my brain reacts positively towards surprise. My emotions become more intense when I encounter surprise. Research suggests up to 400%. That’s massive! Whereas I know a few ‘Type B’s, and they tend to associate it with a lack of control or feeling vulnerable. Let me share a little secret with you… they may think they dislike the feeling of surprise… however, in my experience more often than not, once they get to the surprise part and feel that rush, they are glad they did! It’s more the fear of the unknown. 

A scientific study was conducted using an MRI scanning machine – where they measured activity in the brain’s pleasure centre (the nucleus accumbens). The results were… for want of a better word… surprising! They found that the brain activity was much higher when the individual was faced with something unexpected – meaning that humans do in fact get a kick out of surprises in comparison with the mundane repetitiveness of everyday life. 

Why is this? Well, research shows that the brain is programmed to draw pleasure from the unexpected. The brain is an amazing organ, and it has a unique way of interpreting this chain of events – going through what Renninger and Luna, call the ‘Surprise Sequence’. But how does it do this? And what is the ‘Surprise Sequence’?

  1. Freeze

Firstly, when the brain is hit by a surprise, it actually stops for a moment (yes, you are still Earthside). What this means is that that the flow of neurons through the brain are temporarily interrupted. 

  1. Find

It does this as a way of drawing the brain’s attention back to a single thought, as we try to make sense of what’s going on. It quite literally stops us in our tracks so that we can focus and figure out why that event or outcome didn’t happen as planned.

  1. Shift

After that, a rush of dopamine is released in the brain’s pleasure centre. You may know dopamine as the feel-good chemical in your brain. This is interpreted as happiness by your brain and allows you to shift your perspective and get up to speed with what actually happened! Incredible, right?

  1. Share

Like most experiences in life, surprises are better shared with others. Our instinctive reaction is to share our experiences with others. This is the brain’s way of offloading and de-briefing on what happened. Making sense of it all.

Now, what does all this science and statistics mean for us as humans? It means we should embrace the unexpected and try to mix things up with surprise every now and then. What I take away from this, is that surprises aren’t just for birthdays or Christmas – we can incorporate surprise into our lives all year round. 

What better way to do this, than give a gift! If you have a friend, family member or loved one who is a Type B, I challenge you to give them an unexpected gift next time you see them (maybe even something from What’s That Box!? 😉). Call it a Science Experiment if you have to – see if you can change their ways! 

Good luck – we are sure they will love it (and you’re welcome)! 

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